The Marathon MonksPosted: February 20, 2009 | Author: Doug | Filed under: Buddhism, Religion, Tendai | 7 Comments »
The documentary covers the life of one monk at the end of his trials in the Kaihogyo, which is a very extreme, austere set of challenges of life-and-death. If a monk survives all these ordeals, then he becomes a living saint among Tendai Buddhists. The video says it all, this is very dangerous, austere training. Tendai Buddhism has a reputation for being a particularly austere sect of Buddhism in its monastic practices. Other Tendai Buddhists I’ve met online undergo lighter, more routine training suche chanting mantras while being doused with cold water, lots of hiking and so on. Tendai Buddhism to me seems like a kind of “Bodhisattva Boot-camp”. Of course, these practices are the extreme practices, and many monks within Tendai Buddhism do not undergo them, but the it’s important to note that they are part of the tradition.
When I first watched this video, I thought the idea was ludicrous. In the very first sermon of the Buddha,* the Buddha taught his idea of the Middle Way, which in his words:
“Bhikkhus [monks], these two extremes ought not to be cultivated by one gone forth from the house-life. What are the two? There is devotion to indulgence of pleasure in the objects of sensual desire, which is inferior, low, vulgar, ignoble, and leads to no good; and there is devotion to self-torment, which is painful, ignoble and leads to no good.
But then I watched the video a second time later, and I realized that while extreme and unusual, the training is still based on Buddhist practice. Halfway through, another monk comments that the challenges are not meant to control desire, but to learn how to deny it. This is important in Buddhism because people tend to read the Four Noble Truths and think that they have to get rid of all desire. Buddhist training however is learning how to maintain focus and keep your mind from wandering away when desires and selfish thoughts pull it this way or that. In other words, acknowledging the desire, but denying it nevertheless. Until one practices very deeply in Buddhism, and learns to uproot the deep underlying causes of desire, desire will still exist. It can’t be removed, and as the Lankavatara Sutra teaches, people build up a great deal of “habit-energy” from this life and previous lives that can’t just be washed away.
So, the training really is just a challenge ultimately about the mind. The physical challenge is terrible, but the mental agony is somehow worse, so as the monks learn to confront their own minds and overcome the habit-energy, they can complete the trials.
However, there’s more to this video as I watched it again. Later, one of the monks talks about how through the training he realized that all “everything and everyone are equal.” This of course is a deeper teaching in Buddhism, not something you can intellectualize, but something you come to realize. Each person will realize this truth differently though. Some people really have to learn this truth the hard way, while others learn it through different means. Each person comes to this world with different karma, different habit-energy, different lives and dispositions, so it’s up to each person to work out their own way to realization.
For another monk who did the challenge twice, his life before ordination had been a disaster and failure. For him, the only way to overcome this was to undergo the austere challenges twice. For someone else of a different disposition, the way to overcome desire and to awaken could be the Daily Grind of parenting and work, or through living in retreat as a monk. Each person has a different disposition, and respond to the teachings differently. Having seen this video, I’ve come to respect the monks in the Kaihogyo rather than criticize their efforts. My path, my disposition is different, so I would not undergo those trials, but I understand why they do it for themselves. So I gassho to their efforts, and to the efforts of all who support them.
Namu Amida Butsu
* – Alternate version found in the Agamas can be read here.